Our Boonville Family—Retailers and Coal Executives

1892

Indiana

Ruth Wilson, the third child of Elisha and Nannie Wilson, was born in 1892 in the small, southern Indiana town of Boonville, population about 1,000. The following year, Ruth's father, Elisha, opened a dry goods store, called the Model Store, with his brother John.

The Model Store thrived and became one of the most successful businesses in town. It was located on the town square at Main and Third, near the Warrick County courthouse. The business sold quality goods, including many from the famous Marshall Fields Company in Chicago. When John Wilson died in 1923, Elisha brought on William L. Roth as a partner. An article about the Model Store from a local paper is shown to the left.

It may seem odd, but Elisha's son Robert opened a competing dry goods store with Robert's father-in-law, George Roth (probably related to William Roth but we are unsure). According to Ruth, the competition between the two stores was good-natured, as there appeared to be enough business in town for both establishments.

Ruth's future husband, Thomas C. Mullins, graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1906 with a degree in civil engineering and moved to Chicago to work for a consulting company. In 1913, Mullins's employer sent him to Boonville to manage a failing business, the Sunlight Coal Company. Mullins turned the company around and, within a few years, was vice-president of several Indiana coal companies. He and Ruth married on July 20, 1918, the evening before Mullins was deployed to France with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On his return, the couple remained in Boonville through the 1920s, where Mullins served as Mayor from 1923-1926 and continued as a very successful coal company executive.

Both Thomas and Ruth came from families whose livelihoods historically depended on coaxing wealth from the ground. Four generations of Mullins men preceding Thomas worked on tobacco plantations. It was, surprisingly, Ruth's family that plucked a different type of means from the earth—coal.

Ruth's maternal grandfather, Robert Gough, owned several surface coalmines in Warrick County. Ruth, as a young girl, is shown with her grandfather in the photo below. Robert came from two generations of English "colliers," as coal miners were known. However, colliers worked the mines; they did not own them. It is likely that Robert worked the mines before he left England in 1854, at first settling with his family in Kentucky. We know from a letter to home in 1856 that he was running his own mine by then: he wrote about how difficult it was, especially because of his dependence on the river to transport his coal. If the river was too low, or was frozen over, he was unable to sell anything. Still, he wrote, food and drink were much more plentiful in America than in England, and he and his wife were determined to remain there.

With the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, Robert Gough moved north across the Mason-Dixon line to Indiana. We know that he was a pacifist and probably opposed slavery, which may have been a motivation for his move. One of his sons, Edward, served in the Union Army in Indiana and, after the war, became a prominent lawyer and judge. Robert Gough's youngest daughter was Ruth's mother, Nannie, who was born in 1866. She and Elisha married in 1886.